Friday, August 14, 2009


It happened one evening, after dinner. All of us younger classes were in the hall for an hour of free time before bed, and it was mayhem. The hall looked like it had once been a ballroom with a high ceiling, a long, broad wood floor with alcoves and window seats. At one end was a gallery where musicians might have played in olden times. Girls from a higher class used it as their common room. I had never been up there. Below, the 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds played tag like we used to do. But we were older now. We knew about sex and periods.

That evening I stood and talked to Sheila and Jane. Sheila was a tall, quiet, pretty blonde. Jane was a dumpy, plain girl. They had been best friends for years, as inseparable as a married couple. Jane and Sheila were all right. They were not part of my main gang – the group of five who were the smartest in the class and got into the most trouble – but Jane and Sheila were in the next tier. Friends, just not best friends.

By the end of the evening I had agreed to ask to be transferred out of my cubicle and into their dorm. They needed a third person, they said, and wanted to know if I was interested. Sure, I said, not knowing any other way to answer. I hadn’t been unhappy in the cubicles, though we liked to complain about them. For a moment, there with Jane and Sheila, it seemed adventurous to ask the nuns for a change (I’d never known anyone to do that), to move away from the cubicles where almost everyone else my age was living into a dorm room, which seemed, for a moment, like moving into an apartment.

The three of us became excited, planning our new life. When Sister Felicity blew her whistle, signaling that it was time for bed, Sheila and Jane walked up the big staircase to their dorm room, and I walked down the passageway that led to the chapel, then on past classrooms, through a locker room to the cubicles.

The cubicles were in an ugly new wing, a chunk of practical modernity tacked onto the old school building next to the courtyard and the clock tower where you knew horses had once stood and stamped their hooves on the cobblestones, waiting to be mounted.

“The cubicles” – that’s what we called them -- were two long rows of cells, each with a window, a tiny sink, a bed, a wardrobe and a chair to put your uniform on at night. The floor was white linoleum. At the foot of your bed you drew a white curtain across to close yourself off from the corridor and the cubicle across from you.

Lucy Ann and Madeleine and Nicola and Ann were all there as I brushed my teeth along with everyone else along the corridor, as we all changed into nightgowns and slippers and bathrobes and walked up and down to the toilets at the far end. The usual calling back and forth was there, the usual laughing and jokes that I loved to dive right into and be at the center of. But tonight I realized I had a secret. I couldn’t tell my friends what I’d done. I knew they’d be mad. They wouldn’t like it. I didn’t know why, but I knew I had a problem.

I went to bed with strange feelings of dread, wishing I could turn the clock back and erase the evening. But I was trapped, headed down a chute in the wrong direction. Old Sister Barbara walked up and down the two cubicle corridors a few times in the darkness, singing softly, “When Grandpapa Kissed Grandmama in the Second Minuet”, and then she was gone, but I could not sleep.

I lay in bed in the darkness and silence and began to cry, silently, in the boarding school way, making sure no one could hear me. As I cried I thought about our puppy who my mother had said in her weekly letter had just died at home. The little puppy I had played with that summer. She said Buffin had died. No one knew why. He’d just gotten sick and died. I cried and cried for the hopeful little pup and for my mother who had been so excited about that puppy. She had bought him. We never bought our dogs, but this one she went out and chose and bought because he reminded her of the dog she had as a child. So I cried for my mother too and for how she had taken me to the muddy little traveling amusement park I had begged to visit the week before. I cried, thinking of her expression as she clutched the baby and gripped the bar of some ride, her clothes tailored, a black-and-white check suit with a full skirt and heels. I could tell she wasn’t having fun, but I was. I loved the rollicking capsule we were jammed into, the way it swung and jolted us.

After the ride one of the silver combs from my mother’s hair was missing. My father had brought her those combs from a business trip to Morocco. As I lay in bed the loss of the comb the week before felt catastrophic, as if I had done something criminal and cruel in asking my mother to take me on a ride she didn’t want to go on. And then, look, she had lost a silver comb. I had asked for too much. That’s what it felt like.

I cried, rolling from one wave of sadness to the next and back again – the dog, my mother – and through it all this bitter promise I had made that my friends were not going to like.

Monday, August 10, 2009

What You Can Get Into

I grew up making my bed every morning, thinking you had to. I guess it started in boarding school, 9 years old. The nuns woke us up in the dormitories, small rooms at the top of the grey stone building that had once been a rich person’s mansion. The rooms way up on the third floor – some with slanted ceilings – held different numbers of beds. Some rooms had three or five, a big one had about 11. They woke you up and before going down to Mass or to breakfast, depending on what day it was, you had to turn down your bed – pull down the top sheet and your eiderdown – your quilt. Each girl brought her own eiderdown from home. It was something you could choose, something that did not have to match everyone else. I picked the prettiest one I saw in the store, a delicate pink floral pattern.

Pulling back your covers “aired” your bed while you ate breakfast, something I had never of before, words my mother never used, and then when you came back to your room – we moved in packs – to chapel all together, to the dining room, then back upstairs – you made your bed and brushed your teeth at the sink that each dormitory had.

We washed in that sink every morning from the waist up– baths were scheduled two or three times a week in the evenings, each girl remembering when her shift was. The bathtubs were scattered about the third floor and given numbers so you knew which one to use, tubs set alone in small rooms. Once after I’d gone to bed I was awakened. An older girl, scheduled to have a bath after me in the same tub, had registered a complaint that I had not left the tub clean enough. I was returned to the scene of the crime and went through the motions of cleaning – maybe for the first time that night, maybe for the second – cleaning didn’t register for me yet. I didn’t know what dirt looked like.

There were many moments of sharp shame during the three boarding school years though shame was not a word I used for myself yet. I walked in blindly, nine years old, like a puppy, going where I was led. We had just moved to England in June and in September I began school. I changed schools every year or two so that part did not surprise me. But it still never felt good to walk into a new one. It was a short walk through fire you had to do by yourself.

It made it much worse this time that my school uniform had not arrived and I had to wear my regular clothes when every other girl was in uniform. That was bad. But I did not say anything. That was one thing my mother couldn’t stand – my father either but he was not around much. My mother did not like it when I said I didn’t like something. It made her angry. Her voice got loud and harsh.

Sometimes her hand whipped out and smacked you. It felt mean and scary and I did my best to see her anger coming and get out of the way somehow or other.

So I didn’t say anything about the clothes and was relieved when the right ones finally came and I could match everyone else in my brown tunic, my beige cotton button-down shirt, the striped tie I learned to knot.

I slept in a row of three girls in the corner. You were allowed to bring trinkets to place on a bureau top – I brought my two kissing-alligators – Mr. and Mrs. Florida that Leslie Rider had brought for me in second grade – and the head of Abraham Lincoln that looked like it was made of sugar. I told my new friends it was made of sugar. I lied sometimes – I always had – to increase my street cred. I was on TV I told a kid once, figuring there was no way she could find me out. It sounded so good I could not resist.

“Go upstairs and wash between your legs,” the nun had called me up to the front of the class as we sat doing homework. She murmured this to me, letting me know that I smelled bad. I swallowed it down, went right upstairs to one of the tubs on the third floor and did as I was told, hoping to scrub away all offense. These things could come at you from any direction. You’re swinging along, blithe, and then someone informs you that you’ve made a very big mistake.

When it happened at the end, when my friends turned on me – the friends I had had so much fun with for years, the ones to whom I wrote deliciously long letters during school breaks when we were apart for four long weeks, the ones who sent me back fat envelopes with long handwritten missives in return – the friends with whom I got into trouble beautifully, like an art form – getting detentions for sneaking into forbidden territory, getting marks in the nuns’ little books carried in their hidden pockets – friends with whom I rode a wonderful wave of play and then the rising tide of sexual information. When one day they would not speak to me because I had chosen the wrong roommates – I asked not to return the following year. I asked my mother, scared and embarrassed to want something that much.